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'Freedom writer' tells kids to aim high

One of the original "Freedom Writers," who helped inspire the Hilary Swank movie of the same name, encouraged hundreds of Buffalo high school students on Friday to set goals and dream big.

"You can do it," said Manuel V. "Manny" Scott. "You have to decide for yourself nothing is going to stop you. Stop making excuses why someone else is keeping you down."

Scott, looking dapper in a dark suit, stepped on stage Friday in Kleinhans Music Hall and immediately engaged the nearly 600 students from 17 Buffalo schools with his straight talk.

He told them about his own story of overcoming the odds.

Scott grew up in Long Beach, Calif., stealing and getting high at a young age. His mother was a crack addict, his father in prison. Living on and off the streets, Scott dropped out of school his freshman year.

An encounter with a stranger caused him to rethink his life and go back to school, where he met a young teacher named Erin Gruwell. Gruwell, or "Miss G," inspired Scott and classmates to work hard, overcome their obstacles and pursue higher education.

Their journal entries about their lives were made into a book, "The Freedom Writers Diary," and Gruwell's story was recently made into a major movie starring Hilary Swank and Patrick Dempsey.

"Erin Gruwell helped me apply to college," said Scott, who names his former teacher as one of the great influences in his life, "and she helped me dream big dreams."

Scott has been a motivational speaker since 1999, spreading his message of hope to young people.

He went on to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley in 2000, and will finish his master's degree in May. He plans to pursue his doctorate.

"I do it not just for me, but I think of you who are going through some of the same things I went through," Scott said. "When you see me, I want you to get a glimpse of what you can do, too.

"I don't say all this to impress you, I say this to impress upon you," Scott said. "Dream big dreams."

Scott spoke for about a half hour Friday morning, then answered questions from the crowd:

How do you maintain confidence in who you are, and not compare yourself to others?

"The hardest thing I've ever done is believe in myself," Scott told the students. "I had to make up my mind, 'If no one else believes in me, I believe in me.' "

How did you separate yourself from the gangs and bad influences?

"When I started setting goals for myself," Scott said, "I didn't have the time."

After all the struggles you've been through, what helped you focus on college?

"I started using all of my haters, as my elevators," he said. "For everybody who told me I couldn't make it, I said 'I'm going to show you.' "

Scott -- who lives in Chicago with his wife, Alice -- was brought in by local Lions Clubs, which thought he had an important message to share with students.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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